DNA, Deadlines, and Drafts: A Reflection on the Writing Process 

silver pen on white paper

Throughout middle school, high school, and even my freshman year of college, my writing process was a mystery to me.

Whenever an assignment was almost due, I would sit down in front of my computer, open a new Google Doc and write until I had reached the word count or page limit. I didn’t plan or refine my ideas in advance; the most deliberation I gave was when I read over the assignment details and grading rubric. I would take a moment to organize my thoughts into a single bullet point — a proto-thesis statement of sorts — before beginning to write, calmly pressing out line after line, stacking paragraph on top of paragraph, until I had finished. My points and ideas followed each other meekly in my mind; all I had to do was pull one from my head to the page and the next logical thought came right behind it. Maybe I’d glance over my work once before pressing the “submit” button, but by the time I had closed the tab, I’d forgotten all about the paper entirely. I was totally unaware of variations in the writing process, and I never questioned my serene, machine-like approach. It was only during the second semester of my college sophomore year that I began to learn about the writing process and, as a result, began to understand myself as a writer a little more.

In 1981, Betty Flowers, a Professor of English at the University of Texas, Austin, published an article describing stages of the writing process as four different characters, each with their own personalities: the madman, the architect, the carpenter, and the judge. The article explains that blocks in the creative process can be thought of as the conflict between the madman and the judge: “…two competing energies… locked horn to horn, pushing against each other” (834). The madman is pure creativity, someone who is “…full of ideas, writes crazily and perhaps sloppily”, who “…could turn out ten pages an hour”, while the judge is “a kind of critical energy” who is utterly incapable of generating new ideas; “…for all his sharpness of eye, he can’t create anything” (834).

Reading this article was eye-opening to me. I had never considered that an alternate writing process existed, especially such an emotional and charged process. Writing seemed like such an exciting and dangerous activity when I thought about these four characters slugging it out in the dusty saloon of my brain, and I was disappointed to discover that my process had no traces of any of them. While my classmates described their processes as ancient labyrinths with Minotaurs, or comfy old friends, or wild jungle beasts to wrestle with, my writing process just felt like an old player piano, clicking out notes with precision and rhythm, but with no actual vibrancy, no sort of soul or life. That unhappy thought lodged in my brain, gathering dust on the floor of that empty saloon, until some time later, a new assignment arrived in town and shook everything up. 

The assignment seemed simple enough from the outset, a mere reflection on my writing habits, but unlike before, I didn’t leave it until the eleventh hour to begin. I spent time thinking, mulling over the Flowers article I had read, pondering classmates’ discussion points, and engaging in deep introspection. I ransacked that old abandoned brain-saloon, turning over tables, kicking over chairs, breaking down locked doors, until I found something. I began to finally understand my writing process, and why it seemed so different than the ones Flowers and my classmates had described. All it took was a trip into the hard sciences.

While I enjoy writing, both academic and creative, I am a biology major, and it was a topic in biology that most closely resembles my writing process. DNA is a molecule present in all living things, and acts as the blueprint for every aspect of life; every cell and tissue and organ in your body. It is absolutely essential; without it, we would cease to exist. Because of its absolute importance, every time a cell tries to duplicate itself to create more cells, that cell’s DNA first has to be copied. This process, known as DNA replication, is done by first splitting the DNA molecule in half lengthwise, before a small protein called polymerase attaches to each half and fills in the missing pieces, traveling down the length of the DNA like a zipper until it reaches the end and the cell contains two healthy DNA molecules.

This little polymerase protein is exactly how my writing process works; instead of having the madman, architect, carpenter and judge work on the paper, I figure out how I want to start my assignment in my head, then fill in the holes and missing pieces as I go; methodically moving down through the introduction, body paragraphs, and finally the conclusion. My process isn’t lively, but it lets me hold on to my train of thought easily while still having enough space to keep my own voice in my work.

While I don’t have the same process as Flowers, with her squad of tiny writing people, or my classmates, with their lively, creative journeys, I’ve learned to love my little paper polymerases. Instead of a player piano, I feel more involved, instead of mechanical and robotic, I feel meticulous and tidy. My confidence and enjoyment in writing has soared; no longer is writing a chore to be put off and procrastinated until absolutely necessary. Instead, I now look forward to sitting down at my computer, pulling up my Google Doc, and letting my writing proteins get to work.